End the Stalemate on Rent Laws
New York Times, June 11, 1997
The standoff over rent regulation in Albany is embarrassing the State Legislature and needlessly frightening more than a million families who live in apartments in the New York metropolitan area. Critical state business on matters like welfare reform, Medicaid and the ever-tardy state budget is so backed up that there is dwindling hope any will get the attention they require.
This page has strongly supported a gradual end to New York City's rent regulations and praised Gov. George Pataki's attempt to build a consensus around vacancy decontrol, which would allow apartments to go to market rates when their present tenants move out. Mr. Pataki has paid a high price for his stand. The New York Times poll released today shows that tenant advocates have been successful in making him the central villain in their campaign to protect the laws. This is true even though almost half the poll's respondents supported the plan the Governor proposed.
Despite Mr. Pataki's best efforts, supporters of the status quo have gained momentum. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has played his hand well, in part because the political culture of Albany almost always favors those who resist change. But the landlords and their chief advocate, Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, have done a terrible job of championing reform. The obscene flood of campaign contributions the landlords directed at the Republicans undermined the credibility of Mr. Bruno's initiative. Further, his proposal came packaged not as part of an overall effort to solve the city's housing problems but as part of a war against tenants on behalf of his benefactors.
Although the present law will expire on Sunday, most tenants are protected by leases that run into the fall. Even so, it is time for both sides to drop their ultimatums. The stickiest issue by far is vacancy decontrol. The Times poll shows that even homeowners and residents of non-regulated housing fear that decontrolling all apartments when they become vacant would subject existing tenants to harassment by landlords eager to empty their units. A compromise plan should focus on decontrolling apartments currently occupied by tenants with the resources to protect themselves from illegal harassment to make them leave. A reasonable target might be tenants who have over $60,000 a year in family income or pay more than $800 a month in rent. Apartments occupied by the disabled and elderly should be excluded, and penalties against landlords who violate the law should be increased.
The negotiators must also direct particular attention to the problems of small landlords and those attempting to maintain buildings in low-income areas. The unwieldy and understaffed state bureaucracy that handles rent regulation must make it easier for owners who are unable to turn a reasonable profit on their buildings to get waivers to raise their rents. The abysmal housing courts must uphold the right of landlords who maintain decent buildings to evict tenants who do not pay their rent. Categories of residents who can "inherit" a lease if a lessee dies should be drastically reduced.
Mr. Silver, who has won political benefit from his stubbornness so far, should take the first step in opening serious negotiations. If he continues his intransigence, it will deliver a message that in the Legislature, all the rewards go to those who are most aggressive about doing nothing. The fact that that has proved true in the past does not make it more acceptable.